If there was any justice, the panties thrown at Tom Jones these days would be the size of parachutes, but the fact is that Jones, who turned 70 in June, has built an audience populated with the granddaughters of his original fans. He covered Prince’s “Kiss” with Art of Noise in 1988, and his 1999 album Reload was a set of hip cover duets with the likes of the Cardigans, Portishead and the Stereophonics. Jones is aging with Paul Newman’s elegance and grace. Amazing grace, as it happens; Jones’ new release, Praise & Blame, his latest in a catalog exceeding 60 studio, live and greatest hits albums, is a raw, raucous, Gospel-drenched, Soul-infused marvel.
Jones has long claimed Mahalia Jackson as an early influence and he proves it conclusively on Praise & Blame, a collection of traditional and contemporary songs concerning the search for salvation.
Jones opens with a reflective acoustic take on Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I,” his extraordinary voice exhibiting equal measures of restraint and power over the track’s tribal pulse, followed by “Lord Help,” an explosion of snarling Blues electricity. Jones goes pure Gospel on “Did Trouble,” swings with chapel-rattling force on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happen Every Day” and tears into John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell” with a visceral glee, while his robust and defiant take on “Ain’t No Grave” stands in stark contrast to Johnny Cash’s end-of-life resignation.
Praise & Blame easily stands among Jones’ best work. If he and producer Ethan Johns translate this vibe into his next Pop album (Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett must be kicking themselves that they didn’t pull this assignment), Tom Jones’ triumphant return to the top of the charts will be assured.